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Easy, older rider: deaths of over-40 motorcyclists grow

A graying pastime's downside is a growing roster of older riders killed - a 100 percent hike for the last five years of state statistics.

Published June 13, 2005

[Times photo: Bill Serne]
From left, Mike Thorsen, 37, Randy Freyer, 60 and Vance Benedetti, 62, hang out in Pinellas Park on another weekly ride on a recent Wednesday. Between 1990 and 2003, the average age of motorcycle owners nationwide increased from 32 to 41, said Mike Mount of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation.

Tom Fitzgerald, 53, University of Tampa's highly regarded soccer coach, died riding.
Leslie Chissus of Tarpon Springs was 47 when he died after colliding with a Toyota SUV.

They all died on motorcycles.

Tom Fitzgerald, the University of Tampa's highly regarded soccer coach, was fatally injured when he collided with a Lincoln Navigator. He was 53.

Walter John Kashtan of Dunedin was killed in an accident with a car. He was 55.

Leslie Chissus of Tarpon Springs died when he collided with a Toyota SUV. Chissus was 47.

Merle Bush of Brooksville was killed in a collision with an SUV in San Antonio. He was 63.

In a pastime that is increasingly graying, they join a grim, growing roster of older riders killed at what used to be largely a young person's hobby.

The latest state statistics show that in the five years between 1999 and 2003, the number of accidents involving riders over 40 has increased by 60 percent. The number of riders over 40 who were injured has increased by 59 percent.

And the number of over-40 fatalities has increased by 100 percent.

"We're definitely seeing an elevated population of motorcyclists over 50," said Dr. Lewis Flint, medical director of regional trauma services at Tampa General Hospital. "I think it's probably a reflection of the older population of the state and the fact that there are lots more older riders than there used to be."

Flint's own wife is a motorcyclist, and he acknowledges it can be difficult to have a biker and a trauma specialist living under the same roof.

"I keep reminding her she can't ride when I'm on call," Flint said.

Robert "EZ" Taylor of St. Petersburg said he understands that his reflexes aren't what they were when he was 30.

"We take precautions," said Taylor, 59. "We wear helmets, even though the law says we don't have to. We drive defensively. We leave ourselves room to react to the unexpected because we recognize that our reflexes might not be as sharp as they used to be."

Still, Taylor was in an accident in February and managed to escape with superficial injuries. "We were just in the wrong place at the wrong time," he said. "No reflexes would have prevented it."

Safety experts agree that, just as in cars, some motorcycle accidents are unavoidable. But the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, which runs motorcycle and motor scooter training sessions nationwide, says there are five steps riders can take to increase their safety odds.

Get training and licensing, never assume you know everything, wear proper gear, stay free of drugs and alcohol and ride within your limits.

David Hough, author of two books on proficient motorcycling, says older bikers sometimes outsmart themselves.

"Maybe somebody's never ridden before or rode when they were younger and then gave it up to raise a family and is coming back to it years later and has some money to spend," Hough said. "They start with the biggest, most powerful Harley Davidson they can find without the least clue about the risks - or the fact that any risks exist.

"Some people would say excessive speed kills. I would say excessive stupidity."

Hough said speed is not, in and of itself, the highest risk factor for accidents among older riders.

"There are older people who ride very fast and very safely," he said. "There are others who ride without any regard to good judgment and safety at any speed."

According to the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, there were nearly 219,000 new motorcycle registrations (including scooters) in Florida in 2000. Last year, the number was 417,000. New motorcycle registrations were up almost 91 percent over the five-year period; new car registrations rose just 18 percent.

These figures don't reflect the age of the cycle owners, but between 1990 and 2003, the average age of motorcycle owners nationwide increased from 32 to 41, said Mike Mount, spokesman for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation.

"Older riders need to think about the changes that occur as they age," Mount said. "Their reflexes slow. Their eyesight isn't as good, especially at night. But there's no set age at which people should hang it up. It's a personal decision made after a thorough, periodic self-evaluation. You know when you're not as comfortable on a bike as you used to be."

Ralph Metcalf, 59, is one of those over-40 riders who came back to the sport after raising a family.

"People have the attitude that they rode before, and they can pick it right up again, but they can't," said Metcalf, Tampa's director of wastewater management. "When I got back on a bike the first time, it was intimidating. They're bigger, more powerful and a whole lot faster than they used to be. So I took a safety course and learned all over again."

Hobart "Hobie" Wilcox, who turns 86 on June 23 and has been riding for 71 years, is very safety conscious.

"I used to be a motorcycle fiend, but now I'm just a motorcycle rider," said Wilcox of St. Petersburg. "I'm extremely careful, and I always give way to other traffic. I know my reflexes have slowed way down."

After his wife forced him to get rid of his cycles, Wilcox bought a little red 49cc motor scooter.

"My son took that away from me because he didn't want me to ride it, but I still go over and get it once in a while," Wilcox said. "I ride with my neighbor, who's got a big, big Harley. We're kind of cute together, his big Harley and my little red scooter. I like riding with him because I know he's got my back."

--In the interest of full disclosure, reporter Jean Heller is a motorcycle rider and is (well) over 40.

[Last modified June 13, 2005, 01:42:15]

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